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The shoe-sellers of Bukavu

Congo, Democratic Republic of

At the cacophonous intersection of Marche Feu Rouge and Avenue Lumumba in Bukavu, eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the asphalt fades into packed earth, which is covered with a blanket of brightly colored women’s shoes.

About twenty women have set up shop here to earn a living and cater to a fashion-conscious city, where people aspire to move out of the shadow of conflict and into better times.

Each pair of shoes on display is different from the next: black leather ankle booties, neon orange stilettos, classic pumps and sandals adorned with delicate bows. They line the sides of the avenue, extending in rows ten pairs deep and carrying the brands of well-known upscale retailers and discount stores. They look new, aside from a few scuff marks on the soles.

The women selling the shoes rest on stools behind their displays, laughing, talking, plucking heels from the wall behind them and chucking them to customers. When there are no customers, they remain seated, sandals kicked off. The evenings are cool during the dry season and the women are bundled up in sweaters and wrapped in yards of colorful fabric.

Antonne Chikwanine has spent half her life working here. She prefers the stability of Feu Rouge intersection to her previous work, when she would pace the city trying to sell what she could carry, with a single exemplar shoe balanced on her head.  

She enjoys selling shoes and speaking with customers in what she calls her ‘office’. Even if, sometimes, after weeks spent traveling to Uganda – where she selects and buys these colourful treasures – she makes just a fraction more than she paid for them. People in Bukavu, well versed in this precarious existence, refer to this daily scraping by as ‘le taux du jour’.

Another vendor, Clarysse Kungiwa (pictured right) has been coming to Feu Rouge six days a week for the last 12 years. Before setting off for work each day, she has already said her morning prayers, fed and dressed her four school-age children, completed her housework and prepared dinner for their return.

About five or six times a year, she makes the journey to the Ugandan capital Kampala to buy second-hand shoes with a group of women. They make the 16-hour trip along the legendarily eroded tropical roads, with all the money they have savedup to buy the next load of merchandise.

The women will spend up to a week scouring the markets of Kampala for quality shoes that will appeal to the women of Bukavu, sleeping six to a room. Clarysse’s only complaint is that it is tiring work.

The women do their best trade during the dry summer months. This is party season, when people come looking for footwear to match their clothing and accessories, en route to weddings and other events. Vendors keep a selection of brightly coloured shoes as hopeful matches for the traditional pangas that women often wear to work and church.

High-school student Francine Mushingo (pictured below) doesn’t have a special occasion in mind for the shoes she’s clutching. She leans in to discuss the price with the seller, in hushed tones. Sporting zebra print earrings, black harem pants and three colours of neon stripes through her curly hair, Mushingo pleads for a lower price. ‘I love the shoes here!’ she says, before walking away smiling with a pair of silver platformed wedges, with hot-pink straps.

On a bad day, a vendor won’t sell a single pair of shoes. But Clarysse says that there are also days when she can sell five or more.

She picks up a low-heeled sandal and states her preference for flatter shoes over the many stilettos on her stall. ‘They hurt,’ she says. With first a shy glance and then a loud laugh, Clarysse reveals the number of pairs of shoes that she owns herself: TEN.

All photographs by Erin Byrnes. Captions in order of appearance: Feu Rouge vendors,  shoe-seller Clarysse Kungiwa and shoe shopper Francine Mushingo.

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